Research With and For Marginalised Communities

Andrew Ryder
Andrew Ryder

by Andrew Ryder, Fellow at the University of Bristol, Associate Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, and Visiting Professor at Corvinus University Budapest.

It is my contention that universities are institutions of central importance in maintaining humanist values. Alas we live in age where such a vision seems to be at risk through an audit culture which seems to commodify and tame knowledge production.  I come from a background of service provision and activism, as a teacher and later community organiser working for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma (GTR) communities, and have sought to base this work on emancipatory practice.  Since I started lecturing full time in higher education five years ago, through employment at the Corvinus University Budapest and a series of fellowships at the University of Bristol and Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham, I have sought to fuse my previous background of emancipatory work with knowledge production. This has primarily been achieved by promoting collaborative research with GTR communities.  There is a growing interest in the co-production of research knowledge involving academics working in partnership with marginalised citizens and communities. However, the concept of community participation in research – certainly as equal partners – has been, and remains, contested. Is the knowledge generated ‘tainted’ by activism and engagement or can it be critical and objective?

Descartes contended that knowledge was based on a form of dualism, namely the knowing subject and the known object. This can be termed as an enlightenment philosophy and encompasses positivism, an attempt to transfer scientific practices and attitudes beyond science to social concerns and includes hierarchies based on notions of expertise and the glorification of perceived objectivity. In pursuit of this goal, research should be detached and ‘disinterested’ as it is asserted ‘that getting too close’ to those being researched may lead to bias. By contrast, embodied knowledge is a perspective which situates intellectual and theoretical insights within the realm of the material world, it is grounded in the reality of everyday life. These competing visions have been played out in the debates around pure and applied science, with pure science depicted as part of the classical liberal ideal. However, to its critics it has epitomised the ‘ivory tower’ aloofness and elitism of academia. By contrast, applied science has been depicted as more interested in the realities of life and offering solutions to problems lived.

Positivism puts too high a value on ’pure’ science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture. It has been argued that science-based epistemologies are inherently anti-feminist and monocultural. Indeed critics contend that such positivist thinking is deeply conservative adopting quasi-scientific methods and conceptions of detachment and that the pursuit of objective truth is delusional. Feminist and critical researchers believe that research should be situated (standpoint theory) in the concerns of marginalised people, and this can best be achieved through egalitarian research practices like participatory action research. Such an approach, in my view, brings the researcher closer to a more valid and meaningful form of knowledge. In addition, I would argue, it is more ethical for those being researched, as forms of accountability are developed at all stages of the research including involvement in analysis and interpretation.

Influenced by such emancipatory conceptions of knowledge production I am currently working to promote and establish a Roma Research Exchange, which will enable civil society and community organisations to outline key areas they would like to see researched and explored. A Roma Research Exchange would enable established researchers and students to be informed by the questions raised by community groups/activists and to establish partnerships with community organisations in the research process. Thus such a Roma Research Exchange could offer the prospect of research endeavours which are grounded and relevant to those at the margins. The idea is based on a discussion paper I devised for the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham (Ryder, 2015) entitled ‘Co-producing Knowledge with below the radar communities: Factionalism, Commodification or Partnership?  A Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Case Study’ University of Birmingham: Third Sector Research Centre Working Paper G and is inspired by the Science Shop movement which originated in the Netherlands in 1970s when a group of students decided they wanted to work on grassroots issues. An example of this is a Science Shop at Queen’s University Belfast, which works across all university faculties linking the knowledge and skills of students and staff with community needs through course-based research projects and dissertations. Science Shops can be defined as exchanges which link civil society with research groups that are generally based in universities and research institutions.

Freire’s (1971) conception of critical pedagogy advocates taking as a starting point the experiences of those at the margins but seeks to expand their understanding of those experiences and link them with deeper perceptions. The effect of this is to connect immediate marginalisation with wider structural factors and to also prompt a desire for transformative action. It is my hope that a Roma Research Exchange might contribute to such critical reflection and an inclusive vision of research.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you may be interested in a similar article: Familialism and migrant welfare policy: restrictions on social security provision for newly arrived immigrants by Anna Boucher

2 thoughts on “Research With and For Marginalised Communities

  1. Jane April 21, 2015 / 10:40 am

    Brilliant Andrew -exactly what I have written in. Differ et way in my research into identity in settled Gypsy communities in the New Forest

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